Authors: Elizabeth Gilbert
Edna was standing in front of her dressing-room mirror, haloed in its blazing lights. Her arms were folded, her posture relaxed. She’d been waiting for me. She was still in her costume—the
showstopping evening gown I’d made for her finale so many months ago. Shimmering blue silk and rhinestones.
I stood before her, head bowed. I was a good foot taller than this woman—but at that moment, I was a rodent at her feet.
“Why don’t you speak first?” she said.
Well, I hadn’t exactly prepared any remarks. . . .
But her invitation was not really an
it was a command. So I opened
my mouth and began pouring out ragged, hapless, directionless sentences. Mine was a liturgy of excuses, contained within a
flood of pathetic apologies. There were pleas to be forgiven. There were grasping offerings to make things better. But there was also cowardliness and denial. (“It was just the one time, Edna!”) And I’m very sorry to report that—at some point in my messy speech—I quoted Arthur
Watson as having said of his wife, “She likes them young.”
I spun through all the stupid words I had, and Edna let me twist without interrupting or responding. Finally, I stuttered to a stop, coughing up my last bit of verbal trash. Then I stood silent once more, sickly under her blinkless gaze.
At last Edna said in a disturbingly mild tone, “The thing that you don’t understand about yourself,
Vivian, is that you’re not an interesting person. You are pretty, yes—but that’s only because you are young. The prettiness will soon fade. But you will never be an interesting person. I’m telling you this, Vivian, because I believe you’ve been laboring under the misconception that you
interesting, or that your life has significance. But you are not, and it doesn’t. I once thought you had
the potential to become an interesting person, but I was incorrect. Your Aunt Peg is an interesting person. Olive Thompson is an interesting person. I am an interesting person. But you are not an interesting person. Do you understand me?”
“What you are, Vivian, is a
of person. To be more specific, you are a
of woman. A tediously common type of a woman. Do you think I’ve not
encountered your type before? Your sort will always be slinking around, playing your boring and vulgar little games, causing your boring and vulgar little problems. You are the type of woman who cannot be a friend to another woman, Vivian, because you will always be playing with toys that are not your own. A woman of your type often believes she is a person of significance because she can make
trouble and spoil things for others. But she is neither important nor interesting.”
I opened my mouth to talk, ready to spurt out some more disconnected garbage, but Edna put up her hand. “You may want to consider preserving whatever dignity you have remaining to you, my dear, by not speaking anymore.”
The fact that she said this with a trace of a smile—even with the slightest hint of fondness—is
what destroyed me.
“There’s something else you should know, Vivian. Your friend Celia spent so much time with you because she thought you were an aristocrat—but you’re not one. And you spent so much time with Celia because you thought she was a star—but she’s not one. She will never be a star, just as you will never be an aristocrat. The two of you are just a pair of dreadfully average girls.
of girls. There are a million more just like you.”
I felt my heart collapsing down to its smallest possible dimension—until it became a crumpled cube of foil, crushed in her dainty fist.
“Would you like to know what you must do now, Vivian, in order to stop being a
of person—and become, instead, a real person?”
I must have nodded.
“Then I shall tell you. There is nothing you can
do. No matter how hard you may try to gain substance throughout your life, it will never work. You will never be
Vivian. You will never be a person of the slightest significance.”
She smiled tenderly.
“And unless I miss my bet,” she concluded, “you’ll probably be going back home to your parents very soon now. Back to where you belong. Won’t you, darling?”
I spent the next hour in a small telephone booth in the back corner of a nearby all-night drugstore, trying to reach my brother.
I was berserk with distress.
I could have called Walter from the phone at the Lily, but I didn’t want anyone hearing me, and I was too ashamed to show my face around the playhouse, anyhow. So out to the drugstore I ran.
I had in my possession a general
phone number for Walter’s OCS barracks on the Upper West Side. He’d given it to me in case of an emergency. Well, this was an emergency. But it was also eleven o’clock at night and nobody was picking up the phone. This didn’t deter me. I kept dropping my nickel into the slot, and listening to the phone ring endlessly on the other end. I would let the phone ring twenty-five times, then hang up and
start over again with the same phone number and the same nickel. Sobbing and hiccupping all the while.
It became hypnotic—dialing, counting the rings, hanging up, hearing the nickel drop, putting the nickel back in the slot, dialing, counting the rings, hanging up. Sobbing, wailing.
Then suddenly there was a voice on the other end. A furious voice. “WHAT?!” someone was shouting in my ear. “Goddamn
I almost dropped the phone. I’d fallen into such a trance, I’d forgotten what telephones are
“I need to talk to Walter Morris,” I said, when I recovered my senses. “Please, sir. It’s a family emergency.”
The man on the other end sputtered out a litany of curses (“You Christless, piss-soaked eight ball!”), as well as the expected lecture about
do you have any idea what time it is
? But his anger was no match for my desperation. I was doing an excellent rendition of a hysterical relative—which, in point of fact, is exactly what I was. My sobs easily overpowered this stranger’s outrage. His shouts about protocol meant nothing to me. Eventually he must’ve realized that his rules were no match for my mayhem, and he went searching for my brother.
I waited for a long while,
dropping more nickels into the phone, trying to collect myself, listening to the sound of my own ragged breath in the little booth.
And then at last, Walter. “What happened, Vee?” he asked.
At the sound of my brother’s voice, I disintegrated all over again, into a thousand pieces of lost little girl. And then—through my waves of sobbing heaves—I told him absolutely everything.
“You have to
get me out of here,” I begged, when he’d finally heard it all. “You have to take me home.”
I didn’t know how Walter managed to arrange it all so fast—and in the middle of the night, no less. I didn’t know how these things worked in the military—taking leave, and such. But my brother was the most resourceful person I knew, so he’d solved it somehow. I knew he would solve it. Walter could fix anything.
While Walter was pulling together his part of my escape plan (gaining leave and finding a car to borrow), I was packing—stuffing my clothes and shoes into my luggage, and putting away my sewing machine with shaking fingers. Then I wrote Peg and Olive a long, tear-stained, self-lacerating letter, and left it on the kitchen table. I don’t remember everything the letter said, but it was full of hysteria.
In hindsight, I wish I’d just written, “Thank you for taking care of me, I’m sorry I was an idiot,” and left it at that. Peg and Olive had enough to deal with. They didn’t need a stupid twenty-page confessional from me, in addition to everything else.
But they got one, anyhow.
Just before dawn, Walter pulled up to the Lily Playhouse to collect me and to take me home.
He wasn’t alone. My brother
had been able to borrow a car, yes, but it came with a catch. To be more specific, it came with a driver. There was a tall, skinny young man at the wheel, wearing the same uniform as Walter. An OCS classmate. An Italian-looking kid with a thick Brooklyn accent. He would be taking the drive with us. Apparently the beat-up old Ford was his.
I didn’t care. I didn’t care who was there, or who saw
me in my fragmented state. All I felt was desperate. I just needed to leave the Lily Playhouse
before anybody there woke up and saw my face. I could not live in the same building as Edna, not for another minute. She had, in her own cool way, effectively commanded me to leave, and I had heard her loud and clear. I had to go.
Just get me out of here
was all I cared about.
We crossed the George Washington Bridge as the sun was coming up. I couldn’t even look at the view of New York City retreating behind me. I couldn’t bear it. Even though I was taking myself away from the city, I experienced the exact opposite sensation—that the city was being taken away from
. I’d proven that I couldn’t be trusted with it, so New York was being removed from my reach, the way
you take a valuable object out of a child’s hands.
Once we were on the other side of the bridge, safely out of the city, Walter tore into me. I had never seen him so angry. He was not a guy to show his temper, but he damn sure showed it now. He let me know what a disgrace I was to the family name. He reminded me how much I’d been given in life and how recklessly I’d squandered it. He pointed
out what a waste it had been for my parents to have invested any money whatsoever in my education and upbringing, when I was so unworthy of their gifts. He told me what happens to girls like me over time—that we get used, then we get used up, then we get thrown away. He said I was lucky not to be in jail, pregnant, or dead in the gutter, the way I’d been behaving. He said I’d never find a respectable
husband now: who would have me, if they knew even part of my story? After all the mutts I had been with, I was now part mutt myself. He informed me that I must never tell our parents what I had done in New York, or what level of calamity I had caused. This was not to protect
(I didn’t deserve protection), but to protect
. Mother and Dad would never get over the blow, if they knew how degraded
their daughter had become. He made it clear that this was the last time he would ever rescue me. He said, “You’re lucky I’m not taking you straight to reformatory school.”
All this he said right in front of the young man driving the car—as if the guy were invisible, deaf, or inconsequential.
Or as if I were so disgusting, Walter didn’t care who found out about it.
So Walter poured vitriol upon
me, and our driver got to hear all the details, and I just sat there in the backseat and braved it out in silence. It was bad, yes. But I have to say, in comparison to my recent confrontation with Edna, it wasn’t
bad. (At least Walter was giving me the respect of being angry; Edna’s unshakable sangfroid had been so
. I’d take his fire over her ice any day.)
What’s more, by this
point, I was pretty much numb to all pain. I’d been awake for over thirty-six hours. In the past day and a half, I’d been drunk and screwed and scared and debased and dumped and reproached. I’d lost my best friend, my boyfriend, my community, my fun job, my self-respect, and New York City. I’d just been informed by Edna, a woman whom I loved and admired, that I was a nothing of a human being—and
moreover that I would always be a nothing. I’d been forced to beg my older brother to save me, and to let him know what a shitheel I was. I’d been exposed, carved out, and thoroughly scoured. There wasn’t much more that Walter could say to add to my shame or to further wound me.
But—as it turns out—there was something our
Because about an hour into the ride, when Walter had
stopped lecturing me for just a moment (just to catch his breath, I guess), the skinny kid at the wheel spoke up for the first time. He said, “Must be pretty disappointing for a stand-up guy like you, Walt, to end up with a sister who’s such a dirty little whore.”
Those words did more than just sting; they burned me all the way to the center of my being, as though I’d swallowed
It’s not only that I couldn’t believe the kid said it; it’s that he said it
right in front of my brother
. Had he ever
my brother? All six foot two inches of Walter Morris? All that muscle and command?
With my breath caught in my throat, I waited for Walter to deck this guy—or at the very least to reprimand him.
But Walter said nothing.
Apparently, my brother would let the indictment
stand. Because he agreed.
As we drove on, those brutal words echoed and ricocheted throughout the small, enclosed space of the car—and through the even smaller, even more enclosed space of my mind.
Dirty little whore, dirty little whore, dirty little whore
. . .
The words melted at last into an even more brutal silence that pooled around us all like dark water.
I closed my eyes and let it
My parents—who’d had no warning that we were coming—were at first overjoyed to see Walter, and then baffled and concerned by what he was doing there, and why he was with
. But Walter offered nothing much by means of explanation. He said that Vivian had gotten homesick, so he’d decided to drive her back upstate. He left it at that, and I added nothing to the story. We didn’t even make
an effort at acting normal around our confused parents.
“But how long are you staying, Walter?” my mother wanted to know.
“Not even for dinner,” he answered. He had to turn right around and get back to the city, he explained, so he wouldn’t miss another day of training.
“And how long is Vivian staying?”
“Up to you,” said Walter, shrugging as if he couldn’t care less what happened to me, or
where I stayed, or for how long.
In a different sort of family, more probing questions might have followed. But let me explain my culture of origin to you, Angela, in case you have never been around White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. You need to understand that we have only one central rule of engagement, and here it is:
This matter must never be spoken of again.
We WASPs can apply that rule to
anything—from a moment of awkwardness at the dinner table to a relative’s suicide.
Asking no further questions is the song of my people.
So when my parents got the message that neither Walter nor I was going to share any information about this mysterious visit—this mysterious drop-off, really—they pursued the matter no further.
As for my brother, he deposited me in my house of birth, unpacked
my belongings from the car, kissed my mother goodbye, shook my father’s hand, and—without saying another word to me—drove straight back to the city, to prepare for another, more important war.